What are the Characteristics of an Essential Oil?

Kristyn Bango aromatherapy dosing education essential oil essential oils inhalation precautions puro co safety undiluted oil usage volatile oil


It seems like essential oils are everywhere these days and their popularity is growing like wildfire. Eight years ago when I started making soaps I didn't know anyone using essential oils in their daily life. In my experience, they were mostly the things of hippies, spa, and the occasional soaper. Today I think most of us can think of at least one person who uses essential oils or even sells them. As the home use of essential oils increases and people are becoming more interested in natural health in lieu of conventional intervention, we see more information popping up on how to do that.

There is some great information available to help us get started living a healthier, more natural lifestyle. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of very dangerous information as well, with real long-lasting and sometimes irreversible side effects.  A quick Google search yields hundreds of uses for that little amber-colored bottle you just picked up from the health food store or a friend. Depending on the oil, you might find just as many cautionary tales. It may be difficult to differentiate what is accurate when sorting through it all.  You may find your self wondering what exactly is in that miracle cure everyone is talking about? How do you decide which of those 100 different ways, if any, are safe to use? Instead of giving you another way to use the essential oil, I thought we might go back and talk about what an essential oil is and where it comes from. By having this knowledge, we can better understand just how amazing and powerful they are and make informed decisions on how to safely use them. Unfortunately, many of the resources available online are either myths or misinformation being passed around as truth. Whether it's done by a company marketing the product or a well-meaning person with a misunderstanding of the subject, it's important to always cross-reference the information you come across. Personal education is our best defense against improper use.

My one piece of advice before you even open that bottle of essential oil is to learn everything you can about the product you are about to use. Research what it does from multiple reputable sources.  All your information should not come from a single person or a company that makes a profit from the product you're about to purchase from them. Find out: How should it be used? Who is it safe to use it on? What are the potential side effects or contraindications? What is the proper dilution - because every oil is different. What does a reaction look like? What is the best method of delivery to achieve the results I am looking for (inhalation, topical or ingestion)?  What are sensitization and phototoxicity and is that a potential risk? Once you can answer questions like this and more about an essential oil you're ready to open that bottle and start exploring the world of essential oil uses. 

Now, lets go back to the beginning and find out what is in these little bottles of magic beyond the smell. 

Characteristics of Essential Oils:

  •  Essential oils are extremely concentrated substances, which make them very potent. Depending on the oil it can be 100 times more concentrated than the plant matter it is extracted from.

example: It takes over 8 million jasmine blossoms to create 2.2 lbs of essential oil. Each jasmine blossom is handpicked at a specific time of day. This makes it a very rare and difficult oil to extract. When choosing your oils, the availability of the oil will play a role in the price. An oil like jasmine will be extremely expensive while citrus oils will be much less costly due to their availability and ease of extraction (the essential oil of citrus fruit is found in their peels).

  • Essential Oils are not true "oils" in the sense of the word. They are liquids containing volatile aroma compounds of a plant (over 300 compounds can be found in a single oil). These are also known as volatile oils, which disperse quickly into the air. When you brush up against a lavender plant in the garden or a peel an orange and the smell dissipate through the air that is the plant releasing its essential oil. Although they are referred to as "essential" oils these oils are not required for the plant's survival, although they may provide benefits to the plant. 
  • Aromatic plants produce essential oils. All essential oils come from a specific part of the plant. Lavender buds or the peel of an orange for example, but not all plants produce an essential oil even if they have a scent. 

    example: blackberries - we may find the smell and taste of a blackberry appealing but it does not contain volatile oils. 

    • Essential Oils are lipid-soluble they can only be dispersed in a fat/oil or wax. They can not be dispersed or dissolved in water. This is important to know because by mixing your oils in water you are not diluting them. For instance, if you decide to take a nice relaxing bath and drop a random amount essential oils out of a bottle directly into the water they will float on the surface of the water and absorb into the skin undiluted with all the potential side effects and risk that go along with that particular oil. It is much safer and effective to first mix those oils with a carrier or base oil and then add them to your water. This will insure the oil coming into contact with your skin is at its proper dilution. Again, the acceptable dilution rate is different for every oil and can change depending on factors such as age and health.

    Because essential oils are so potent and concentrated they should never be applied neat or undiluted except in extreme specific cases with a few specific oils and under the supervision of a licensed professional. These are people who have received training and certification in the field of aromatherapy or aromatic medicine through a reputable school specializing in these fields. You wouldn't take pharmaceuticals that weren't prescribed by licensed professionals, essential oil should be treated with similar regard. Use caution when anyone says just apply these directly to your skin. This is not safe dosing information. The two oils that can occasionally, rarely and under specific situations that can be applied neat are lavender and tea tree and even these are not without caution and potential risk.  Even the most gentle oils like lavender can cause sensitization. The smallest amount of oil should always be used to achieve the desired effect for a specific reason. This can be as little as a .5% dilution. Using too much oil can actually have the opposite effect of what is intended. An example is there are some essential oils that have a calming effect when used in the proper dilution and can turn in to a stimulant when the dosing is increased.  Using more oils does not increase the benefits but does increase the risks! 

    We will end with one little tip about purchasing. In a world where everyone wants to be the best, the purist, the only product you can use, an easy at-home tip that can help you find out if your oil has been adulterated is to put a drop on a piece of paper. As we talked about earlier essential oils are volatile oil and will disperse quickly.  What this means is that when you put a drop on a piece of paper it should dissolve completely and leave no residue, ring or sign that it was ever there. Once it dries, if there is an oil ring spot or mark left on the paper it has been diluted or adulterated. 

    I hope this is helpful to you if you are just starting into the world of essential oils, or if you have been using essential oils for a while and just looking for more information.


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